Writing through the hard place

Last November I signed up for a workshop through Writer’s Digest Online University. I had just finished drafting my memoir about my sister Annie when I read the e-mail and on a whim signed up for the workshop.

My sister Annie was born a year after me with severe brain damage, although she wasn’t diagnosed until she was over a year old and my parents didn’t fully realize the extent of her problems until even after that. On August 16, 2009, Annie died. My memoir is about love, devotion, fear, sorrow, and hope in an afterlife where Annie might be Dancing in Heaven.

Anyway, I was well-satisfied with the workshop. The teacher, Carolyn Walker, who worked with the five or six participants did an excellent job of pointing out all the things you hope someone reading your manuscript will point out. The workshop didn’t allow for a complete review of my entire manuscript, so I hired Carolyn as a consultant to finish the job. I received her comments late last week.

She was very supportive and complimentary, but the comment I most focused on was the one I copied below.

“There are places where I push you to write more about your emotions. I know that’s hard for you,” Carolyn wrote and she sent me a copy of an essay, a series of interviews with memoirists, she had written called, “Writing Through the Hard Place.”

To say it was not easy to write my memories initially is a monumental understatement. And now Carolyn wanted more.

Annie couldn’t walk or talk or do much of anything, really. She required the care of an infant. But at one point in my memoir I wanted to convey the loss I felt when I was younger of having a sister I could do things with. So I included a dream where Annie is walking and talking and I am fixing her hair like my older sisters sometimes did for me. Carolyn thought the dream was confusing and should go. I didn’t want to let it go. It was important. But maybe the dream wasn’t expressing what I had not necessarily wanted, but needed it to.

And that’s when these words popped into my mind, down through my fingers to the keyboard and appeared on the screen,

I felt cheated. If I’m being completely honest I can’t deny the fact that I felt cheated out of a younger sister who would look up to me. I looked up to Kathy and Carol. I watched what they did and tried to emulate them in many ways from how to wear my hair, to what to shoes to buy, pants to wear or music to listen to.

I didn’t have a younger sister I could teach how to do things. I didn’t have a younger sister whose hair I could fix or make-up I could put on like my sisters did for me. I had a younger sister, but I couldn’t do any of those things with her.

I know it sounds small, and very self-serving, but the truth is sometimes I just felt like I had been cheated.  I felt cheated for myself and I felt cheated for Annie. We both had been cheated. My mom and dad had been cheated. We all had been cheated out of knowing the person Annie might have been.

Sometimes I wondered if she would have been more quiet like me, or vivacious like Carol. Would she have been pragmatic like Kathy, or a hilarious story-teller like my brother Jerry? Would she have shared a love of reading with me or would she have been a gifted artist like Carol and Jerry? What things would we have talked about? My memories of my other siblings all contain conversation. I don’t have that for Annie. I have only my words to her and her smiling back.

No one ever talked about what we all lost. The closest anyone ever came was when I interviewed my parents and asked, “How do you think our lives would have been different as a family if Annie would not have been disabled?” And my dad said, “ Well, I’d have had one more bright daughter.”

He would have. That’s what we all were cheated out of.

I never heard my mom utter a word about what might have been. There was no useful point to considering it and Mom was far too practical to think about it. Or if she ever thought about it, she was too practical to speak of it. But once when I asked if she thought Annie knew she was different, or felt bad that she couldn’t do the things that we could do, Mom said, “Look how happy she is. This is the only life she’s ever known.” Another time Mom said, “In some ways, she’s the lucky one. She’s never known rejection, or failure, or reprimand. All she’s ever known is love.”

We loved Annie. She was very special to us. In many ways she was a very special gift to us. We didn’t want to deny her by wishing she were different. We didn’t talk about it.

Would we have magically transformed her into a fully functional human being? In a heartbeat. Not for us, but for her. We had all been cheated—and Annie, by far, had been the most cheated of all.

Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

13 thoughts on “Writing through the hard place”

  1. Your words and emotions touch my heart. I don’t know if this is what Carolyn wanted you to write, but I’m blinking furiously to get the tears away.
    Love to your family and to you Christine.

  2. I would say you just wrote through the hard part. The honesty and love in your words is evident and completely understandable. Beautiful.

  3. Well, mission accomplished. That was simply excellent. I think being honest in a “politically incorrect” way is the truest way to humanize an emotion put on the dusty shelf. I know it’ll be an amazing story to read!

    1. Gee, I hope it’s not too politically incorrect. But I understand your point. When we say only what others are comfortable hearing, then we’re hiding the hard parts.

  4. Beautiful. Your mom’s comment resonates with me:

    Another time Mom said, “In some ways, she’s the lucky one. She’s never known rejection, or failure, or reprimand. All she’s ever known is love.”

    Thanks, CM


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